‘From the Freedom Rides to neuroscience’

In conversation with Professor of Practice Ben Jealous, neuroscience professor Peter Sterling returned to campus to talk about activism in his youth and how that informed his research in health.

Peter Sterling recently next to mugshot from 1961.
University of Pennsylvania neuroscience professor Peter Sterling joined the Freedom Rides in 1961, when he was an undergraduate at Cornell University, and was arrested. (Images: Courtesy of the Office of Social Equity and Inclusion)

As an undergraduate at Cornell University—before becoming a graduate student at Case Western Reserve University, and before arriving at Penn in 1969 as an assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of MedicinePeter Sterling joined the Freedom Rides in Mississippi, where he was arrested and jailed.

Recalling those days, Sterling said, “There were four or five graduate students in physics or math and they were going, and I decided to go. Bob Dylan has this saying, ‘Don’t think twice,’ and I didn’t think twice.” 

He made the remarks in conversation with Professor of Practice Ben Jealous, executive director of the Sierra Club and former president and CEO of the NAACP, as part of the Harold Haskins Lecture Series. 

“My message at this moment is: We can make things better,” Sterling said at the beginning of a wide-ranging talk that was part personal narrative, part health and science lesson, and part call to action. Jealous thanked him at the end, “I really appreciate the way you bring all of you to everything that you do.”

Sterling closed his lab at Penn in 2009 but is still publishing. Now splitting his time between Panama and Massachusetts, Sterling traveled to Penn for a series of events held by the African-American Resource Center (AARC), Albert M. Greenfield Intercultural Center, Mahoney Institute for Neurosciences, and Office of Social Equity and Community. In the days after the “A Lifetime of Justice: From the Freedom Rides to Neuroscience” event with Jealous, he spoke with undergraduate student leaders and activists, talked about health equity, and gave a lecture challenging the standard model of depression.

Sterling said before joining the Freedom Rides, he and other Cornell students supported the sit-ins of Southern students by picketing a Woolworth’s store and encouraging landlords to rent to African American students. Tearing up, Sterling explained that he was born into this work, as he was born in 1940 to parents who were writers and social activists, who supported unions and opposed racial segregation.

As a graduate student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, he would slip away from his microscope to canvass door-to-door in Central, a poor Black neighborhood. He said the people answering were often partly paralyzed, and in the lab, he learned the cause: stroke from chronic hypertension.

He became more interested in the links between stress and hypertension, which he said is “just the tip of our stress-caused mortality.” When he started his own lab, Sterling studied fine-scale neural circuits but “was also devouring ethnographic studies to learn how people live,” he said.

Ben Jealous and Peter Sterling.
Ben Jealous and Peter Sterling talk about Sterling's activism and academic work. (Image: Tia Gaines/Office of Social Equity and Inclusion)

Sterling said as industrial development has shrunk opportunities for humans to engage in challenging activities, “we’ve narrowed the possibilities to explore our innate gifts,” but health requires social inclusion and the ability to practice our gifts across our lives. Jealous commented that it often feels like western society is re-learning things we have forgotten, things humanity once understood.

Sterling said the mindset of modern medicine is to reduce everything to molecules, and he pushed back on this, saying health problems are not going to be solved at the molecular level, but that “people have to step back and realize we can live a different way.”

One attendee asked what people can do as individuals to lower their stress. Sterling talked about exercise, breathing out slowly, and finding social connections, sharing his own experiences meeting weekly with a men’s group in West Philadelphia for more than a decade, seeking psychotherapy, and finding his way to Judaism.

Honoring a Penn legend

Sterling’s invitation to return to Penn’s campus had its roots in Alliance for Understanding, a longstanding program for students to learn about the Civil Rights Movement and its Black and Jewish history. This includes a trip to sites in the South.

Scott Filkin, co-director of the Office of Social Equity and Community, participated with a small group of staff in the summer of 2022. One of their stops was the Freedom Rides Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, and as Filkin was staring at a wall of mugshots from arrested participants, the identification of one as a University of Pennsylvania professor caught his eye.

Filkin said he reached out to Sterling, and AARC Associate Director Darin Toliver thought Sterling would be a great speaker for the center’s second annual Harold Haskins Lecture. The lecture’s first speaker was JoAnne Bland, a civil rights activist who marched in Selma in 1965 and co-founded the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma. Bland met with the staff on their 2022 trip and previously with students

The lecture series honors Harold “Hask” Haskins, who recruited, mentored, and uplifted Black students in his 34-year tenure at Penn. After his death in August 2020, the Black Alumni Society launched a fundraising campaign to support programming in his name.

Sherisse Laud-Hammond, senior director of Penn Alumni Leadership & Inclusion, said the group wanted him to be remembered for how much of his life he gave to what she called the four Black pillars of Penn: the AARC, Makuu: The Black Cultural Center; Africana Studies; and W.E.B. Du Bois College House. Gifts made to the BAS Honoring Legends Fund also support a research grant, fellowship, and renaming of a multipurpose room after him.

“Harold believed our young Black men were worth saving,” said Colleen Winn, staff assistant at the AARC, calling him the “reason so many Black undergraduate and graduate students attended and thrived at this University.”